Swiss referendum on the freedom of movement in the EU and vice versa

September 27, 2020 has been a great day for the EU-Swiss relations. The Swiss electorate voted on that day on the popular initiative for a moderate immigration into the country. Swiss voters chose to reject by nearly 62% the proposal to end the freedom to move, to live and to work in the EU, which is one of the main pillars of the CH-EU relationship. At the same time, Switzerland has avoided to prevent EU citizens from freely working and living in its territory. 

As is well-known, what singles out Switzerland is its strong economic and social integration into the EU without full membership. Indeed, as Norway, Switzerland is not a member of the EU, but it has a series of interdependent treaties with the Community, which allows it to mainly access to Europe’s free trade area. Switzerland, this way, can retain its sovereignty and independence, whilst trading seamlessly. For instance, in 2019, half of all Swiss exports were destined for the EU. 

Especially, looking at the past, Switzerland voted in 1992 by 50.3% to 49.7% against joining the European Economic Area. Next, till to 2002, the Swiss Federation negotiated and then signed the first bilateral agreements with the EU. They decided to be interdependent and include the free movement of people, which was however backed by a vote in 2002. After some years, in 2005, Swiss citizens voted to join the Schengen Agreement and decided to extend the free movement to 10 new EU states. Similarly, in 2009, the freedom of movement was extended again to new EU members, that are Romania and Bulgaria. 

Last popular initiative was brought by the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP), but was opposed by the government, parliament, trade unions, employer organizations and all other political parties fearing an overall jeopardization of the relations with the bloc. The Swiss People’s Party blamed immigration from Europe for a rising population in the country, overloaded public services, more environmental damages, less employment for Swiss citizens, higher prices of the houses and a ruined construction market. By the way, a similar initiative to introduce quotas on immigrants from the EU to Switzerland narrowly passed in a 2014 referendum, damaging so Swiss- EU relations. 

President von der Leyen welcomed with pleasure the favorable outcome of the referendum, because this will allow to continue to consolidate and deepen the relationship between Switzerland and the EU. In this connection, the President remembered in her statement that Switzerland and the EU are good neighbors, who share a solid partnership since long time. These strong and deep ties between the two parties are given of course by the geographical position of Switzerland, who is located mostly at the center of Europe, and, much more importantly, by the close bonds between the citizens of both parts. Indeed, about 450’000 Swiss people live in the EU and 1.4 million EU citizens live in Switzerland, many of them work in the health service. More precisely, nearly 25% of Switzerland, so 2.1 million people, are foreigner, the majority of which (1.4 million people) comes from the European Union and the United Kingdom. More, 320’000 EU citizens cross the border daily to work in Switzerland and some 60% of Swiss exports go to Europe. 

The result of the proposal’s vote shows undoubtedly the awareness of Swiss citizens about the value of their connections with the EU, in particular of those people, who are firsthand involved, because get daily across the borders.

Fundamentally, following the referendum, the Agreement on the Free Movement of Persons (AFMP) will continue to be in force. The AFMP is one of the seven bilateral agreements that Switzerland and the EU have negotiated in a package, known as Bilaterals I, which gives Swiss businesses direct access to the European market The other six agreements of the package concern the research, agriculture, technical barriers to trade, public procurement, overland transport, and civil aviation. 

More, Ignazio Cassis, the Head of Federal Department of Federal Affairs FDFA, reaffirmed, on the subject of current Swiss-EU relations, the Federal Council’s position to consolidate and develop further the bilateral approach with the EU, by entering into an institutional agreement, to ensure that the bilateral agreements operate more effectively. This is an essential step for Switzerland, because it is conditional on reaching a better solution on wage and worker, state aid and the Citizens’ Rights Directive.

Indeed, since 2014, the European Union and Switzerland have tried to formalize more the relations between them through the so-called “Institutional Framework Agreement”. However, Bern is still waiting for signing it, because it wants certain points clarified. 

At the same time, also the EU demonstrates its willingness to conclude the Framework Agreement. In specific, following the positive result of the referendum, von der Leyen will deal further with the Swiss Federal Council for its signature and ratification of the above mentioned agreement, that the two parties begun to negotiate in 2018. The European Union and Switzerland arranged this last agreement with the aim of consolidating the mutual market access and make it more fit as possible for the future. The institutional agreement should apply to already five existing and to all future market access agreements. 

In the opposite, a yes vote on the referendum would have obviously derailed very much the country’s relationship with the European Union, by triggering a so-called guillotine clause, that would have impacted the bilateral deals with the EU, disrupting all economic activities. In particular, it would have put automatically an end to the Bilaterals I package, including, of course, crucially, the AFMP. The Federal Council would have negotiated a way of terminating the AFMP with the EU within twelve months. If these negotiations failed, the Federal Council had to unilaterally terminate the AFMP within further 30 days. 

Supporters of the anti-free movement plan argued that it would have allowed Switzerland to better control its borders and select only the immigrants it wants. On the contrary, the opponents are convinced that it would have plunged suddenly a healthy economy into recession and deprive, of course, the Swiss citizens of their freedom to live and work across Europe. 

Voters preferred very probably not to break now during the coronavirus phenomena and a such economically uncertain period their open, bilateral relations with the EU, because it would have entailed a higher economic cost. 

It’s true, though, that the European Union has told Switzerland it cannot chose to maintain either only free trade or free movement of people, so Switzerland had to take it or leave it, and apparently it showed that was a reasonable deal.

This Swiss referendum was prepared even before the UK voted in 2016 for Brexit. The SVP had used similar arguments in favor of Brexit about the benefits of having more control over immigration. Indeed, Nigel Farage, the head of the UK’s Brexit party, admitted that the Swiss-EU relationship model was an “inspiration” for the UK on leaving the European Union. However, because net migration into Switzerland is actually falling at the moment, Swiss voters are probably slowly becoming tired of party’s anti-immigrations messages. 

By the way, the EU could maybe thanks to this response from Switzerland strengthen now its power towards the UK and show that it is possible through some compromises to conclude good bilateral free trade deals with the Union.

Finally, Swiss voters were called on the same day to vote also on other four separate initiatives. Three of the initiatives, that are the already mentioned EU migration, together with tax education and animal protection, were originally scheduled for May, but were then postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Other two initiatives about the paternity leave and a policy about new fighter jets were added in recent months. In particular, under the proposal about the paternity leave, fathers will finally, for the first time, be granted two weeks of paid leave within six months of the birth of the child and they will also be entitled to receive 80% of their salary. In addition, voters approved a government plan to buy new fighter jets for up to 6 billion CHF and decided to block a revision of Switzerland’s hunting law, which would have made it easier to hunt protected species, such as wolves. Overall, voter’s participation rose to 59%, which is exceptionally high, as rarely more than 50 % of voters go to vote.